The Communication of Death

This past week we had two unfortunate incidents relating writing and death. The first was the passing of author David Foster Wallace. Like many other contemporaries of Wallace’s I found his masterpiece Infinite Jest simultaneously aggravating and exhilarating. His non-fiction on the other hand gleamed with a face-against-the window realism and detail that most writers skip over in place of rote facts and tired cliché’s. I once read that the farther you get away from the visual and the tactile in the arts, the higher your chance of suicide. There is a very real difficulty holding treads in both worlds—one world that inspires and sometimes lets you down and another that you create out of reflections, alphabets and inspiration.

The second incident was the train tragedy in Los Angeles. Communication tilts many dominoes every day: an inside stock tip, an unforeseen ‘I love you’ and on the business side a follow up email from a vendor. Rarely, but occasionally, the delivery of communication fails us. A minor, real-life, case of this would be my email being down this morning when I needed to send a final file to a client. A major case of it would be the yet to be substantiated claims that the conductor of the crash in Chatsworth missed a track signal because he was texting on his cell phone.

Choosing what to communicate is very important. Choosing when to communicate is vital.

Respectfully,

Ian Alexander

The Conversation is Often a Broadcast

Linked In

Scenario: It’s the week after you’ve attended a conference. Sitting at your computer you come across a stack of business cards, folks you’d like to keep in contact with—(ideally to create and maintain a relationship). You jot off a series of non-pitchy, follow-up emails—albeit there could be sales potentials but the relationship is what you are focused on. This is what you get back:

Bill

I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.

-Anon

No email response. No reference to the conference you both attended, just a simple LinkedIn invitation. You believe there is value in the relationship, so you click “Accept” and realize you are one 500+ people in this persons network. Whoanh Whoanh.

Many of the people using LinkedIn and other social networking/community sites are digitizing the card dispenser/amasser strategy akin to conferences, by trolling for contacts. There are some people/firms who don’t take individuals/companies seriously unless they have a magic number of contacts in their social network. And what originally started out as a global conversation has quickly degraded into a broadcast. “It’s not what you know but who you know” has taken on a life of it’s own, and in some cases not for the best.

When you have 2149 contacts in your social network, how many of those people do you really know? Are you building those relationships or are they notches in your networking belt?

A community usually works together to embrace the well being of the group. A network is a connection, lacking an emphasis on how strong or weak that connection is. A community (virtual or real) is comprised of a coterie you could turn to for advice and assistance. Your network consists of folks who are more apt to wonder what is in it for them. My neighbor Jeff knows a great mechanic—that’s my community. My mechanic—that’s my network. Can they be one in the same, yes, but it takes work.

Flip Video-Deny Everything

In 1980 The Circle Jerks recorded the song “Deny Everything”. The San Francisco based company Pure Digital Technologies, maker of The Flip, has incorporated this strategy into their customer service.

“I’m innocent
until I’m proven guilty.
Deny everything, Deny everything.
I’m being framed
it’s all a set-up
Deny everything, Deny everything
I’m just a spoke in the wheel
just a part of the puzzle
a part of the game.
I’m being framed
innocent
until I’m proven guilty.
Deny everything
Deny everything
Deny everything
Deny everything”

I like many other people saw the wonderful video by David Pogue about The Flip and was intrigued. Shortly after watching the video I hopped online and purchased a shiny white one from TheFlip.com. Two days later I purchased a second one at Best Buy. (I had a conference to attend and ship time wouldn’t have it to me by my departure date.)

Initially the camera worked great but on the second day it wouldn’t allow me to delete videos. Actually, it would allow me to delete videos but it still thought the camcorder was full after deletion. In between conference sessions I called customer support—5 times. Each time they gave me a different thing to try, none of them worked. Each person I spoke with said they had never heard of my issue and that there were rarely any problems with The Flip. Once I arrived home, failing to record the conference highlights as I had hoped. I called customer service again to say none of the solutions they offered worked. They started me right back at the beginning of the troubleshooting chain, having me repeat what I had already tried. Finally, after a tremendous waste of my time, they stated that they would take a look at it—if I paid to ship it back to them. Their product is broken after 1 week and I have to ship it back to them?

Since I had the second Flip I purchased from Best Buy I returned the broken one and asked for my money back. No go, but I could get a new Flip in exchange. After one use with the new one: Record, Save, Delete. I ran into the same issue. 3 more calls to customer service and I am still waiting.

Had I gone to Amazon and done a check on the Flip I would have read all about their dreadful customer service and MAC support.

$350 dollars in camcorders

$70 in accessories

10+ calls to customer service (2 pending)

On my most recent call this morning I got someone new.

She asked what OS I was using (the first time that this question had been asked).

“Leopard,” I replied.

“Oh, it doesn’t work with Leopard,” she answered.

Maybe they felt they were “proven guilty” or perhaps the customer service rep was a fan of early punk rock. Either way—branding, customer service and content marketing are a closed loop that has to work in harmony. No harmony here I’m just Flipped Off.

Content Be-Where?

Targeting your audience. It’s a simple concept but one that is often done poorly.

This weekend I caught a reflection of the inside of fly on my Lucky Brand Jeans it reads “Lucky You”. Funny and bit risqué, but definitely memorable and a good example of content placement. The designer jeans business is driven by fashion which is driven by sex appeal and Lucky made a remarkable play with this.

Later in the day, on a weekend warrior Lowes run, I passed a homemade sign on the side of the road that read “Childcare Available”. The sign was one of those wire stakes in the ground jobbers—but this one was ultra special. It was stenciled with silver spray paint, on cardboard, at a busy intersection. This sort of advertising breaks all the rules—poor design, lack of a targeted audience and shoddy execution. The childcare business more than most industries is built on trust and I would bet the farm the company who made these signs didn’t receive a single call.

I can hear the conversation now.

“The economy is down, we need more sales and we can’t afford to do more advertising.”

“We’ll let’s stay late and make some signs.”

Three cans of spray paint later the company unknowingly branded themselves as sloppy, dangerous and uncaring—not the kind of people you want handling your children.

Is your organization thinking creatively about content or haphazardly tossing signs on the side of the road?

Top 10 Half-Assed Content Marketing Solutions

1. Producing relevant content and without taking design into consideration.

-Stock photography that looks stock does absolutely nothing to promote authenticity—in fact it degrades it.

2. Putting multiple people in charge of your content marketing strategy without direction or oversight.

-Too many Indians equals a watered down content marketing strategy, and too little input equals words on a page without a clear call to action. Your content strategy should be your marketing department’s number one priority and your top team should be managing it, or managing the vendor who is managing it.

3. Creating a content marketing strategy without looking at what your competitors are doing.

-Although there is never a guaranteed blueprint for success, you have to perform due diligence before investing time and money towards content. To really hit it out of the park, you should be looking at what the most successful companies across all markets are doing. Subscribe to Ad Age Daily for a taste of what market leaders are up to.

4. Using the same format over and over.

-Unless you are the New York Times, the “wall of words” approach probably isn’t the best strategy, so mix it up. How-to’s, charticles and Q & A’s are all effective ways to engage readers through memorable content.

5. Telling your story instead of letting your customers tell it for you.

-New customers don’t trust you, but they do trust your current customers. Offer happy customers free services or products to participate in an interview or case study. Create a community or forum from which you can cull great stories.

6. Blogging, every once in awhile.

-Your blogging strategy should drive your content marketing strategy. People want to do business with people, not monolithic corporations, so show potential customers who you are and what you know. (Google likes new content, too.)

7. Interviewing customers and not re-purposing the audio from the interview into a podcast.

-Audio is easily captured during an interview via digital recorder or conference call recording. You can highlight one great answer or post the entire interview. We call this a two-for-one. (Story and a podcast.)

8. Tossing new tools (Podcasts, Video, Wiki’s and widgets) atop an unclear content strategy, or shaky infrastructure.

-Implementing a wiki, case studies and a handful of widgets is not going to unleash the customer floodgates. You have to have build your content strategy from the top down, and from the inside out. Seth Godin’s book Meatball Sundae describes this in detail.

9. Telling people what they already know.

-Don’t repeat what is already common knowledge. I quote and reference many authors, content marketers and executives but I don’t always agree with everything they say, and I say so. You need to make your voice heard. Don’t be gray—it doesn’t look good on you. Be orange instead.

10. Talking to too broad of an audience at one time.

-If your content marketing plan involves a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to connecting with prospective customers, stop. Go back to the drawing board and start over. Successful marketing only works when your message is targeted. If you are creating content targeting middle-aged drivers and teens, chances are you are going to fail miserably on both fronts.

Content Marketers: Do You Have a Voice?

Information without voice is like content without design. Unless someone is dying to read about what you are writing, you have to grab them with your voice/personality. And because many of the articles in the content marketing space are saying very similar things, making your voice (and the voice you give your clients) stand out is one of your biggest tools. Use it.

The way I see it, there are five flavors of writers in today’s content marketing world.

Dry Toast – All information, no voice
This corporate collateral is typically produced by smart people who know all the right marketing formulas and can juggle terms like the “integration of marketing channels” with “streamlining the optimization of sales collateral.” But when you’re done reading this company’s blog/newsletter or collateral, all that’s left is a vague memory of a PowerPoint slide gone boringly wrong.

Solution: Don’t be afraid to lightly ruffle some feathers with your voice. Your view/opinion is never going to appeal to everyone, but if you’re doing things right, you aren’t marketing yourself to everyone, anyway. Also, if you do an honest assessment of your collateral and realize you’re in the Dry Toast category, ask yourself if you’re still fishing for your core competency or audience.

Extra Sauce – All voice, no information
“Then, after I attended the Shiny Happy Convention hosted by Guy I Knowsowell, I parlayed over to the Social Media event of the year. If you weren’t there, you really missed out.” Really, I missed out. Because you reporting on your blog about the event you attended shouldn’t have been all about you. You know.

Solution: Talk to us, not at us. Keep your reader at the forefront of all your communications. If you’re going to write about every industry conference you attend, give us information we can use (not a blow by blow of your itinerary and all the cool people you saw).

French Cuisine #1 – Great design, little to no content
Flash is for advertising firms and art school. Everyone else put it away, now.

Solution: I realize it looks cool, but lets just face facts: Flash loads slow (always), the motion graphics detract from the content, it’s difficult to track (SEO), and sometimes customers and prospective customers already know what information they want and don’t have time for your two-minute splashy intro or your nav-bar to reload. Great design should breathe life into editorial content, not take away from it.

French Cuisine #2 – Great design, little to no content
Without great design, readers may come to your site, get what they want, and get out. Content needs great design or no one will ever notice it. Or if readers do notice it, they most likely won’t navigate beyond what they came to read. Case in point—I am a basketball nerd. Every morning I read Hoopshype.com and ESPN.com. Even though I have been reading Hoopshype for years, I couldn’t tell you who advertises on the site, the names of the regularly appearing columns, or anything about who runs the site—I’m in and I’m out. With ESPN, I read the NBA highlights, view an ad that catches my eye, and before I know it, I’m reading a feature about some champion ping-pong player from Guam. The content may have drawn me there, but it was great navigation and design that made it easy for me to stay.

Solution: Make sure your website looks as good as it reads. The truth is, Hoopshype has far better content than ESPN when it comes to basketball. But while the content delivers, the design doesn’t court me to stay.

Meat and Potatoes – No opinion information
Content that tells people what they already know gives readers the impression that the product is available elsewhere—and it doesn’t matter if they use company A or B. Telling me what you sell, what you charge and that you are the best is the same thing everyone else is doing. And in a contest of best vs. best I’m heading for the hills and looking for offbeat and good (at least they are saying something different and I will stand out amongst the crowd of same-osity). Remember, your clients can blend in safely amongst their peers all by themselves (sans your retainer fee).

Solution: Every brand doesn’t need to be as “voicey” as Jet Blue. But every brand does need a personality. Customers should be able to view an ad or read a piece of collateral and know who it’s from without even having to look at your logo.

Smorgasbord – A little of everything
Ever land on a website and wish you had a digital weed-whacker to knock back all the Social Media/Web 2.0 widgets that clutter the site? Welcome to the work of the “smorgasbord content marketer.” That old “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” mentality unbelievably employs people for years, but flies in the face of logic when you are in the business of measuring who read what, when, why and how it may lead to a sale.

Solution: Take a look at your site and then your competitors’ sites. Do those
widgets add value? Do they differentiate you from the pack? Or does your site look like a 2008 Jaguar littered with bumper stickers?

Where the Content Takes You

Behavioral Insider this month reports on where surfers are spending their time. “The disconnect is that consumers spend only about 15% of their time actually searching, and the other 85% of the time surfing or in email,” says Brett Brewer from AdKnowledge.

Last week, Eat Media VP Ian Alexander documented his surfing habits and found out he trusts who he knows and wants to know what they know.

7:30am

The Social Network
-Read email from Facebook, click to Facebook.
-2 friend requests–approve the friends.
-There are no ads on Facebook (which I like).

The General Content
-Surf direct to CNN.
-Browse the content. Get my daily world news fix.
-An advertisement for Lifelock catches my eye.
-Surf to Lifelock.

Relevant Content/Relevant Advertising
Lifelock is an interesting site promising to secure my identity against hackers and identity thieves. I’m not in the market for it, but I’ll remember it.

The Content Connection
-Surf back to CNN and click on a story about bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed last August. (My partner attended a client conference nearby just few days before the bridge collapsed.

The Coterie
-Read email from Junta42.
-The interesting headlines on Joe’s newsletter always get me to bite.
-Click on Junta blog link–great content as always.
-Joe’s blog gets me thinking of other folks in the industry I like to check in on.

-I surf directly to Webinknow.
-Webinknow, David Meerman Scott’s blog, is edgy and knowledgeable. A great resource.

-Surf directly to Web-strategist, Jeremiah Owyang’s blog. The web-strategist is slanted more towards social networking and sharing information. I always learn something here.

-Surf directly to Church of the Customer.
-Ben McConell and Jackie Huba’s blog is updated frequently and full of great industry insight.

The Customer (Dis)Service
-Read email from hosting provider (about a complaint I lodged).
-Surf to hosting provider to look for another contact address (they only have a form).
-Surf Google and start searching for a new hosting provider.
-Write down a few hosting providers to research later.
-Read email from a Local Professional Group I am a member of. The newsletter is poorly designed, has pixilated images, and no unsubscribe. Very unprofessional.
-Send them an email to point out these problems.

The Content Connection
-Read email from LinkedIn.
-Click on advertisement for Booksurge.com (they want my email before they tell me what they do; I click away from the site). A second check today shows a new homepage. Booksurge is owned by Amazon who also owns Alexa.

-Surf directly to Alexa. I want to know how many sites an average individual looks at per day. They don’t have the information on their site. I email them.

The Content Connection
-Read email from Biz Report.
-Surf to the site. Content is very report-centric, new apps, studies, etc.
-I follow a link to a free whitepaper on Social Marketing, they want my name, address and answers to a few questions before I get to see the whitepaper. In a few seconds I am reading the whitepaper. It is a tad pedestrian but well designed. This proves why I don’t normally like squeeze marketing ploys—the payoff is rarely worth my email address.

The Social Network
-Read email blast from a friend’s little brother’s band.
-Surf to their MySpace page.
-Surf to Google, search for “We the Kings.”
-Select YouTube link, which features over 30 videos of the band (the most viewed video had over 700,000 hits). If you think the kids are on to something, you are correct. If you think this social networking is a fad, chew on this. The lead songwriter of We The Kings just got a big check and procured the majority of his fans online. Thanks to YouTube, MySpace and exposure on other social networking sites, you can now hear their songs on the television show One Tree Hill.
Talent + web presence and content marketing = success.

8:03am

Morning Surfing Summary
-Email is a launch pad for my web surfing.
-I go back to sites with content that interests or informs me.
-I am apt to follow links off sites that have content which interests or informs me.
-Bad customer service (via email) leads to lack of confidence.
-Your customers aren’t randomly searching for you.
-Getting your customers to trust you and your content is key.
-Social Network sites generate buzz, create business and make 24-year-olds rich.

Customer Service is about the customer not the company

fatcow

Dear Hosting Service not only are you are killing me. You are killing your own business and I am moooving on. Last Monday we got to the office early to prepare for an afternoon pitch. Around 9am, I got this email from our designer.

“Have you been having problems with the site lately? I’m not able to connect via ftp or view the site online.

Kristine”

I went to our site. Nothing. Blank. I tried to login to my FTP – error #mysiteisntworkingandIhaveademoinafewhours. In other words, no login possible.

I hopped over to our hosting provider Fatcow and looked around for a contact email. Nothing. I clicked on “Need Help” and got an FAQ. There was an option for LiveChat, but I’ve done that in the past and have found it to be like the self-checkout line at Lowes—a great concept lacking execution. My last option was to contact the “Moo Crew” (their term)—I prayed that this was going to lead me to an email address, but instead I got stuck staring at a form.

The form in this instance was acting partially as form of squeeze marketing, a device used when you have something I want (say a whitepaper or an e-book) and I have something you want (an email address and/or phone number), and partially as a filter. But what I wanted was my site to be up and running, and Fatcow already had my email address, phone number, and credit card number, so there wasn’t much more I could give them. At that moment, a form was the most inappropriate thing a company could have possibly offered me.

My last option was a call to Fatcow’s 800 number, where I sat on hold for 30 minutes. The only blessing of the hold was knowing they were going to take forever. With the speakerphone on full volume I greeted the UPS guy, took a call on another line, and stepped outside for some air. I even had a little time to search for a new hosting provider on Google. The whole time, the same terrible Muzak Jazz blared on and on. Finally, a gentleman answered and gave me the third degree about my URL, my favorite dog, and mother’s maiden name. After all that, I got:

“How can I help you today?”

“Well, my site is down and I have a demo in a couple of hours.”

“What is your URL?”

www.eatmedia.net. (The same one I gave you 19 seconds ago.)

“Yep, she’s down.”

“Yep, that’s why were talking. The question is…when will it be up.”

“Not sure. We had some servers go down. Could be awhile but it shouldn’t be too long.”

After hanging up I sent this email to Fatcow:

As a longtime customer, your outage last week is indicative of a downward spiral from your good old days The India tech support (LiveChat) was a terrible idea, the Canadian service (phone) is better. But overall, I am very disappointed. I used to recommend you to everyone and sing your praises, but I think I will be “moooooving” on.

And this is what I got back the next day:

“Thank you for getting back to us.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you. I’m glad you shared this because it gives us a chance to improve our quality, and this is what we intend to do. I again apologize and assure you that we’ll provide you with the stable hosting and support you are looking for.

If you have any further questions, you can e-mail us seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

A huge opportunity for Fatcow to make things right zipped by like a Nolan Ryan fastball circa 1973. After telling them I was thinking of leaving, they chose to share with me that they are happy I shared. The problem is, my sharing with them doesn’t make me happy.

The lesson here is every single contact with your customers is important. There is too much competition today to tick them off. If you outsource any functions of your business, be it customer service, tech support or even sales and marketing, make sure those who represent you and your business understand that your brand is in their hands. And for god’s sake, if you built your business based on great customer service and support, don’t let it slide into mediocrity. Servers are cheap these days. But finding new customers? Not so cheap.

*I have been using FatCow for upwards of 10 years now. When I first starting using them, it was known as a nerdy, tech friendly hosting provider. Over the past two years, I have seen a noticeable decline in services. If you know a reliable, customer friendly hosting provider, please drop me a comment.

I’m it — 8 things you didn’t know about me

Last week I got tagged by Joe Pulizzi from Junta42 to reveal “8 things you didn’t know about me.” So, without further adieu:

1. I have had three exactly cell phones my entire cell-phone career. Only the most recent phone has been a flip phone.

2. Before I met my wife eight years ago, I didn’t own a television. Today I own two.

3. I have the uncanny ability to guess which Borough a New Yorker is from and can correctly identify, within four towns, anyone residing from my home state of Massachusetts.

4. In my 20s, I had a business reproducing Frescoes and lived in Italy for a summer. Some of the Frescoes I designed/produced made it into the Vatican gift shop and the Ringling Museum of Art.

5. I once held the official/unofficial title of “Magic Pony” while working at the MIT startup, Z-Corp. With the exception of co-founding Eat Media, it was the most thrilling, educational and fascinating experience of my life. Watch my former boss, Tim Anderson, make a canoes out of rattan chairs and microwaves into welders here…

6. When I first took a job at a NYC dotcom, I had nowhere to live, so I slept at the office and showered at the gym. My first big task as director of technical projects? Find the CTO a stand-up Spy Hunter video game. Those were the days.

7. The composer Charles Ives is one of my heroes. Sadly, when his former home went on the market in Irvington, NY, I was 7 or 8 hundred thousand shy of purchasing it.

8. A friend of mine is a big wig at the NBA. I asked him to get me into scrimmages at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where the pros play in the off-season. He said, “You’re fun to watch play and could hang for a few minutes but you don’t stand a chance.” (I still foolishly think I could run the point for a few teams.)